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G-Sync: Coloring Outside the Lines

Tommy Allen at Taqueria San Jose.

I never used to be racked with phobias until I started to get a bit older. Then, with the aid of hindsight 20/20 vision, it became abundantly clear where the roots first hit fertile ground. The result of such fears can be crippling. Luckily, there are steps to move beyond our fears, because this time of the year, one of mine is in full tilt.

Fear of flying? Check. Only choosing to fly when I have to do so these days.

Pteronophobia or the fear of being tickled with feathers? Emerging.

Enochlophobia, an affliction some have attributed to plaguing Albert Einstein. In its simplest form, the fear of crowds. For me? Managed. I’ll give you a second to pick your jaw back up off the floor.

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of large crowds – but not in a way where I fear being trampled or picking up the latest seasonal bug from an infected person’s proximity. No, mine is the good old-fashioned fear of being lost in the crowd and separated from the ones I love. It is rooted in a department store incident from my childhood where, as I tugged a woman’s coat, it was only when she turned to look at me that I realized it was not my mom.

I have this same reaction at ArtPrize. It is why, if you do happen to see me, my head is razor-focused on where I want to go, and I’ll stop only long enough to say, “Hello.” Then I head back on my path with a speedy pace.

Looking over the crowds of folks in town for ArtPrize, I know I cannot be the only one who experiences enochlophobia. But if I let crowds stop me from going out, that would be a mistake, too. That is why I have learned to manage it well over the last couple decades. I'm finally at the point of being able to walk on stage after years of intense fears that could sometimes only be overcome by listening to Barry Manilow’s “Beautiful Music” on repeat. (It was pre-pop-a-pill-for-what-ails-you days.)

So don’t worry: There are plenty of things that you can see and do downtown where crowd encounters are a minimum. If you are enochlophobic or simply are “crowded out,” then let’s look at a few options this week that keep you in the public square without feeling overwhelmed by it.

Strolling through East Hills streets the other day with my GR Walks App fired up, I decided to take a quick libation break at The Pickwick Bar. Bottled beers are served there at the not-recommended-but-damn-well-worth-it-on-hot-day temp of 28 degrees. (At 27 degrees it starts to get slushy, but at this temp, once a hand touches the glass, it climbs steadily to optimal drinking temps.)

One of the area’s oldest bars in the city, The Pick – as the locals call it – was founded in 1914 and is the type of neighborhood watering hole where, in the afternoon, it is still quite possible to find a quiet, sunlit table by the window where a beer can be secured for under $4. I’m not the only local who loves it, either.

“While Dave and I were waiting for a table at Vivant, we wandered down to The Pick for a quick drink,” says Rachel Hood, Executive Director of WMEAC. “What we love about this space is that we can dependably start a conversation about the neighborhood with seasoned Eastowner/East Hillers.”

Exiting to the street, I bumped into my friend and stylist Becky Gohl, who suggested that when she feels overwhelmed by the crowds, it’s off to Argos Bookstore – a neighborhood staple in Eastown.

As I wandered down to Argos, I took in the entire richness of this space that is flooded with light from the south-facing windows. That rare, used, or visually intense comic book is often just within inches of your reach at a store famous for this impressive floor-to-ceiling eclectic collection.  

Wandering about the store on this day, I could feel the warmth of the sun begin to lift up that wholly unique used bookstore smell. Lost in the shelves, I began to let my imagination wander. I wondered if, in the very near future, when people encounter this unique book scent, they will enter the same reflective space where I found myself. Or will they just pop an extra stick of gum to cover the aromatic scent so unfamiliar to electronic-only types?

Looking around at the college students perusing the collection, I think that it is not in danger just yet. The site of people looking for books in a public setting is something I doubt the iPad can ever replicate. People freely converse about what they have discovered with people around them. This experience cannot be replicated online.

Friends of mine often mention the coffee shop scene - from Kava House to The Bitter End - as their place to escape from it all, but for Chris Reader there is one favorite venue that truly stands on an aroma of good reviews, and that is Rowsters - but not just for the much-talked-about coffee.

“The coffee shops on this street are so much more than just a coffee shop,” says Chris Reader of Senior Software Developer at Spectrum Health. “They are a complete experience -  parts of complete streets, if you will, far beyond the planning mechanics of a complete street. They feel like home, an extension of where I live.”

When people use the phrase “repurposing space” during ArtPrize, many often think of venues like SiTE:LAB or any one of the pop-up galleries that exist on the street, but I doubt very few think of taco stands.  

Arriving at Taqueria San Jose on the south side of town, I’m reminded that this Division Avenue spot was once home to the 1950s drive-up restaurant popular in mid-century American culture.

Times have changed but America still loves to eat. It is just that our options have migrated beyond burgers and fries. If you are looking for a Great American treat, then venture to this taco stand with indoor and outdoor seating. Just don't be afraid to wander off the well-worn menu trail of the holy trinity of meats: beef, chicken, and pork.

While it might not be your cup of tea, the locals all order the beef tongue tacos, so in the spirit of taking new steps forward, get the tongue. But remember you're going to want to chase it with a nice, icy-cold Mexican Coke – a unique concoction that proudly declares no high-fructose corn syrup is in it.

One of the last stops on my journey was at the John Ball Park (not a real ball diamond but a Westside Kent County Park with a zoo).

The city of Grand Rapids is rich with parks of all shapes and sizes; often one is just within a short walk, bike or car ride from wherever you find yourself.

As I made my way to the park just off W. Fulton, I encountered many neighborhood business signs up and down the avenue advertising their ArtPrize 2013 specials, from coffees to the local DQ.  

Once at my destination,  in the middle of the park’s pond was Nessie, one of the 2009 ArtPrize Top Ten winning pieces. This year, instead of people gathering around with cell phones, snapping photos and casting votes, the crowd flocking around it was birds of a different feather. I noticed a variety of wildlife, including the sight of a wonderful blue heron fishing close by, which captured my vote to linger a bit longer.  

“The thing about the park and the zoo is that it’s really difficult to be there and be in a hurry,” says Danielle Walsh, a Grand Rapids artist. “Those two concepts just don’t go together. Even though it’s mostly about the animals, I think of the place as a nature refuge for humans.”

For those who are not a fan of crowds at ArtPrize but still feel inclined to go see the art anyway, no worries. There are plenty of chances to see the works of art when the venues are less crowded.

But on those days when you feel you simply cannot leave the comfort of your house, then just take that first step off the porch as you begin wander short distances. When the spirit moves me, I venture through city blocks covered with trees to my neighborhood spots, like Creston’s Fat Boy. You can get an honest-to-goodness smash burger and crinkle cut fries, all served in an almost anonymous, blissful setting.

It might seem a bit disingenuous to advocate another week for embracing the small or, as I have done here, to encourage you to venture into our neighborhoods just as 450,000 people descend upon our city limits over these 18 days. You can have it all or elect to make your life big or small.

I'm not saying keep away, but rather, when you have had your fill of the crowds, instead of just staying home, I’m merely saying it is okay to color outside the lines sometimes.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

This week's G-Sync Events are packed with opportuities day and night. Let's Do This.
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